Remembering the A.D. Baker Company

By LeRoy W. Blake
May/June 1979

Abner Baker and brother-in-law, Chauncey Berkebile, and old Baker engine no. 1 at the Baker farm, June 1948 at National Threshers Reunion. 


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The A.D. Baker Company was located about 20 miles west by southwest of Toledo at Swanton, Ohio. They built steam traction engines, grain threshers, and large gas tractors. Their last steam engines were built in 1929, but their large gas tractor business was booming. They shipped a 25-50 Baker gas tractor to Lincoln, Nebraska for testing at the University. That tractor developed 75.88 HP in the belt, and 55.72 drawbar HP or the highest of any wheel tractor up to that time.

Personal memories of Baker
My first dealings with the Baker Company were in the summer of 1917 when I took a set of 2' boiler tubes to them to be retipped, or a new piece to be welded on one end. These tubes were from a 10 HP Nichols and Shepard steam traction engine, no. 3447 built in 1893, left hand steering and no friction clutch. I bought this engine in the previous March about 6 miles north of Fayette, Ohio, and the tubes had been rolled so many times they were so thin at the firebox end they leaked.

I cut the tubes out and put them in the back of my Model T Ford car with the back window curtain up. The Baker Company put them in their slow revolving tube rattler to remove the scale, and brighten them. They trimmed the best end and aceteleyne welded a new piece on about 4' long. This had stood idle about 4 years, and perhaps they were the second set. When I went to get them several days later, I saw Abner Baker giving each tube a water test to see there were no leaks at the weld.

In the spring of 1919, Cramer Brothers who lived in the south part of Hudson, Michigan, my old home town, 16 miles northeast of my present home, bought a new 23-90 Baker uniflow no. 1610, and I watched them unload it from the flatcar at the Lake Shore Railroad depot dock. Previous to this, Cramer Bros. had a new 30-60 Hart-Parr tractor about 1910. Something went wrong on the flywheel side, and they drove it to Bill Abbott's machine shop yard in Hudson. Mr. Abbott could not pull the key to get that heavy (1500 lbs.) flywheel off so had to chisel a slot in that big hub that ruined it. It had to be replaced with a new one.

About 1913 Cramer Bros. traded that Hart-Parr in on a new 30-60 type E Oil Pull. They told me that oil pull used about 5 gallons of motor oil a day. After a couple of years they installed new piston rings, but no better on oil consumption. They took the pistons out, in fact I saw them dragging the pistons on a cement floor in Abbott's machine shop with a crow bar in the connecting rod crank pin bearing hole. They took the rings over to Advance Rumely at Battle Creek for a refund. The A-R Company said the rings showed they had been used, and no refund. That made Cramer mad so they traded the model E in on the new Baker steamer in the spring of 1919.

The Baker steamers were made with large exhaust nozzles2' pipe size which was a good idea, but sometimes in light work the engineer had to use the steam blower to keep up steam. The exhaust was so light some smoke came out around the edge of the fire door. I told them to bush it down a little to create more draft.

In February 1918, an Advance boiler blew up a few miles northwest of Swanton. It was owned by Arthur Perkins, a part time employee of the Baker Company. Abner Baker and his test house foreman, J. W. Albeck, came out and looked over the boiler, and said the double rivited lap seams showed corrosion on the inside where it failed. Mr. Perkins was injured, and laid up for a couple of weeks. I saw that engine afterward, and it was there for several years and made a good advertisement for the Baker Company.

On March 28, 1920 a devasting cyclone struck Swanton and did a lot of damage to the Baker Company buildings. One was their main office but they saved most of their records. Their last 25 HP no. 1638 was new and in a small building waiting to go to the paint shop. The cyclone demolished the shed but did not damage the engine much. I saw that engine in March 1921 before it was taken to the paint shop, and was told it was sold to a Mr. Jackson in Monroe County, Michigan. About 1928 Steve Cobb of Reading, Michigan bought that engine. He sawed hardwood lumber the year round for the Acme Folding Chair Company at Reading in southern Hillsdale County, Michigan. I visited a lot with Steve Cobb, and saw him sawing on a big job a few miles east of Alvordton, Ohio in the spring of 1931. That 25 HP no. 1638 had a butt-strap boiler but was not stamped Ohio Std. The drive wheels and gearing were scrapped many years ago, and the new owner at Wauseon, Ohio was trying to find replacements. I heard this engine was sold, and went to John Holp of Lewisburg, Ohio. The Baker Company built less than a dozen of these big engines that had a cylinder size 10' bore by 10' stroke. One of the Baker catalogues about that time listed a uniflow 29, but I don't think the company ever built one as I never saw one, and I was at the Baker factory many, many times.

Abner Baker realized that they should have a high pressure steam tractor and came out in about 1923 with a water tube boiler (or steam generator) carrying 550 pounds W.P. It was automatic stoker fired, radiator condenser, and low down plunger pump to pump the condensation back to the water tube boiler. It would have been a great success if the cylinder oil could have been separated from the condensation. After much use, the cylinder oil coated the inside of the water tubes and caused them to fail.

Abner told me their first high pressure steam tractor had a double cylinder simple engine, but that was too wasteful. Their next engine was a vertical cross-compound, but he told me he did not like the indicator cards as they showed the low pressure piston made about one-half stroke before the high pressure cylinder released its steam. I told him he would have to admit the Reeves cross-compound was a very good economical engine. He did not answer me.

Their next high pressure steam tractor, about 1925, as a tandem compound with piston valves, and center crank but did not use the Baker valve gear. The valve reverse gear was similar to the Grime but carried the top end of the eccentric strap on a radius link, or just like my invention that I applied for a patent on May 17, 1920. The boiler on this engine was a horizontal fire tube carrying 300 pounds W.P. with superheater in top of firebox. This also had an automatic stoker.

The A.D. Baker Company used to have a prospective customer meeting in June each year with free lunch at noon and about 500 attending. The first one I attended was in June 1928. My wife and son, Gerald, had an interesting time that day. A new 25-50 Baker gas tractor was belted up to the Baker Prony brake that was anchored to a maple tree in front of the thresher building. They were using an 8' drive belt, and the lower belt was nearly dragging on the ground all the forenoon. After lunch they belted up a new 21-75 Baker steamer, and backed in the belt real tight on the Prony brake and started working the engine. They were getting some slippage, and backed into the belt still tighter, and tightened the Prony some more, and the 21-75 never slowed down until the drive belt came off.

A photographer took a large picture of the group with some of us sitting on a new Baker steel thresher. This picture is in the July 1928 issue of the American Threshermen. We are in the middle of the picture. Abner Baker's fine brick mansion was located at 302 Chestnut Street, or about 40 rods south of their office, and he would take a short cut going to their office by crossing the double main track, and side tracks. His daughter-in-law warned him many times to be very careful crossing all those railroad tracks. He crossed them hundreds of times and never had a close call, but later on, she was killed in a car crossing accident a few rods to the west.

About 1930 when I was down to the Baker plant, I saw a new steel Birdsell clover huller on a flatcar in the railroad yards. I never found out where it went or if it was unloaded there. Later on when I was at the Birdsell plant in South Bend, Indiana, I was told they built only three steel hullers. Allis-Chalmers took over that plant in 1932.

The A.D. Baker Company built about 1630 steam traction engines previous to 1921, and when they came out with their heavy duty that year, they jumped their serial numbers up to read like 16135. The middle figure indicates the year the Baker engine was built. I was told by three different former employees of the A.D. Baker Company that Abner did not invent their valve gear, but did perfect and patent it. That inventor was an employee by the name of Gifford who lived about six miles north of Swanton, or just west of Assumption, Ohio. I remember calling on him as he owned a Russell steam engine, a cider mill, and did some sawing.

The Baker valve gear was patented March 3, 1903. Their catalogue claims they get a full port opening when the piston has traveled only 3/8' from dead center. An Advance salesman, George Shannon of Battle Creek, Michigan, told me there was nothing gained by that early admission, and I said, 'How about getting rid of the exhaust quickly?' He replied, 'Well you got me there.'

The 1918 Baker catalogue states a new 19-65 HP Baker uniflow with 8%' x 10' cylinders at Ohio State University in Columbus developed 66.6 HP at 258.7 RPM with steam pressure at 177.7 pounds using 23.6 pounds water per horsepower hour, and reverse lever in 5th notch from corner. Compare this with my 24-75 HP Port Huron 'Longfellow' compound in three economy runs that averaged less than 23 pounds of water per horsepower hour when the engine was nearly 40 years old.

Abner Baker conceived the idea of making a large fan to work his new engines on in the test house, and to take to competitive events. Records show he had this Baker fan at Wichita, Kansas on April 3 and 4, 1907. Nearly a dozen steam traction engines owned by manufacturers were there for the competition. The 25 HP Russell turned the fan 716 RPM and the 18 HP Peerless 573 RPM, the 16 HP Baker 692; and the 20 HP Baker 735; the 16 HP Huber 660. Competitors claimed the Huber was carrying 250 pounds of steam when the steam gauge registered 150 pounds. This fan had a housing around it that would make it run easier, and the operator had a choice of different diameters of pulleys.

I got the specifications from Abner, and his son, Louis, to build a modern Baker fan, and had a nice one made at a welding shop in June 1954 over 20 years ago. That year 17 engines were tested on the Baker fan at the National Threshers Reunion at Montpelier, Ohio and the results were published in the May-June 1955 issue of Iron Men Album. Louis David's Avery 40 turned the fan 660 RPM developing approximately 160 HP. LeRoy Blaker's 22-65 Case turned the fan 620, or approximately 130 HP, Phil Garman's 18 HP Advance-Rumely was the lowest 452, or 66 HP with 150 pounds W.P. LeRoy Blaker's 24-75 Port Huron equipped with a Baker piston valve, operating as a simple developed 115 HP turning the Baker fan 600 RPM.

In the fall of 1944, I bought two used 32-100 HP Port Huron steam engines, one a portable, and the other a traction. The traction had a sprung crankshaft, so I sawed the 3' shaft off at the crank disc that was 29' in diameter and took the 300 pound disc to the Baker Company for a new shaft. I drove down there a few days later, and as I neared the office door I saw the disc just outside. I over heard Abner Baker tell his Indiana salesman, Fred McClure, that he did not think Blaker's 32 HP Port Huron could put out 100 HP, as he had measured the disc, and it had only a 10' stroke. Well that engine put out 115 HP for me.

Abner's brother-in-law, C. Berkebile, did the machine work on the new 3' crankshaft, and the company charged me $105.00, and I furnished all the material.

Abner Baker loaned me their Prony brake for my first gathering of steam friends here on my farm June 30, 1945. Several years later, Abner gave me that Prony brake, and I turned it over to the National Threshers Association when they organized.

According to my records, the last Baker steam engine was a 23-90 HP, no. 17992 built in 1929.

Abner Baker was born near Fredericktown, Ohio on March 17, 1861, and married Ella Berkebile in 1888. Their son, Louis, was born in 1891. Mr. Abner Baker was a widower many years before he passed away June 16, 1953 at the age of 92 years.


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